CHICAGO - For a brief stretch of time on Dec. 19, it appeared as if the Buffalo Sabres were in position to grab a win over the Chicago Blackhawks. After Ryan O'Reilly had scored to break a 1-1 tie with 3:20 remaining in the third period, the momentum at First Niagara Center was completely in their favor.
A lot happened in those final three minutes. Simultaneous penalties against the Sabres gave the Blackhawks a 5-on-3 power play that became 6-on-3 once they pulled their goaltender. Buffalo native Patrick Kane tied the game for Chicago with 33.5 seconds remaining – and just one second left on the penalty – and then scored the game-winner in an eventual shootout.
With that game in mind, the Sabres feel like they owe one to the reigning Stanley Cup champions when they meet for a rematch on Friday night at United Center.
"Oh, absolutely," O'Reilly said. "We had the game right until the last minute, but consistency is an important thing in this game. You have to play a full 60 in order to beat a good team."
Coverage on Friday begins at 8 p.m. ET with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550 with puck drop set for 8:30 p.m.
Chad Johnson will start in net for Buffalo and will oppose Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford. Johnson made 26 saves in the first meeting between the two teams, which he remembers for being one of the Sabres' most consistent performances of the season.
"I think we just stuck with our system," Johnson said. "I think we're a really good team with the puck – you can see that – think we're one of the best teams when we have the puck. I think when we don’t have the puck is where we're still learning and I think that game was one of our best games without the puck.
"I think we had a good F3 [a backchecking forward] at all times. We didn’t give them a lot of odd-man rushes. I think when we're doing that we can play with any team, Chicago or whoever it is."
O'Reilly suggested that perhaps it was the level of competition that inspired the team to put forth its best performance right from the opening faceoff. Chicago boasts some of the most talented offensive players in the game, led by Kane's League-high 60 points (23+37) and 38 points from 24-year-old rookie Artemi Panarin (15+23).
"This is a unique team to play," he said. "I think we know to a man that we can't have any casual moments. They have so much firepower that having that mindset, being ready for their skilled guys, we did it right away. We competed, we knew what he had to do and we went and did it."
Since that game, however, Buffalo has struggled to put together the same kind of performance. The Sabres won their next game in Boston after the loss to Chicago, but have since dropped five straight. They've only scored one first-period goal during their current losing streak.
If they play on Friday the same way they did last time against the Blackhawks – this time for the full 60 – it could be the kind of performance that can steer the team back in the right direction.
"I hope so, yeah," Johnson said. "I think the last three or four games we haven’t been that strong there, but hopefully we can get back to that, that same play that we had before Christmas where we were so strong defensively and as a group we weren’t making mistakes. We had that really good foundation.
"With this game coming up here, I sure hope that it kind of reignites that."
9 Evander Kane – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 23 Sam Reinhart
28 Zemgus Girgensons – 15 Jack Eichel – 88 Jamie McGinn
82 Marcus Foligno – 22 Johan Larsson – 12 Brian Gionta
26 Matt Moulson – 59 Tim Schaller – 17 David Legwand
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 47 Zach Bogosian
25 Carlo Colaiacovo/6 Mike Weber – 46 Cody Franson
31 Chad Johnson
35 Linus Ullmark